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Budapest » Budapest Caves
Budapest is not only famous for its thermal baths, but also for its remarkable caves, some of which is open to the public. The two are linked, of course: the caves were formed by thermal waters in the first place, albeit over several millions of years. There are two hundred known caves under the city, and one can visit four of the most extensive and spectacular ones. Each one has its own particular character. As well as being a very pleasant antidote to the heat of a summer’s day, they can’t but make you realize how man’s time on earth is as a spec of dust compared to the natural world all around, or in this case, below.
Castle Cave (Varbarlang)
(I. District: Úri utca 9. www.labirintus.com) A feature of all karst cave systems is the perpetual dripping of water, and this one is no exception. The temperature is a constant 57 degrees Fahrenheit (14°C) and the humidity around 90 per cent. The system stretches for over six miles beneath the streets and buildings of the ancient Castle District of Buda. It is believed those cave chambers originally fashioned by the action of thermal waters were already in use over a half a million years ago as both hunting ground and shelter. It was much later, during the Turkish period, that for military and economic reasons the system was expanded.
Individual chambers were not only joined together with each other but also to the cellars belonging to the houses above. Thus a real labyrinth was formed in the very belly of Castle Hill.
Further systematic construction of tunnels linking the caves was carried out in the 1930’s. There was even an underground shelter built that could accommodate up to ten thousand people. Its value became obvious during the siege of Budapest towards the end of the Second World War. Thousands of people took refuge here in the winter of 1944/45. There is a story – perhaps apocryphal, nobody really knows any more – that for a time post was delivered to families sheltering in the caves. Nowadays 43,000 square feet of caves can be explored and enjoyed in Buda Castle’s unique Labyrinth.
(Open 9.30 a.m. – 7.30 p.m.)
Chapel in the Rock (Sziklakapolna)
(II. Szent Gellért tér) Gellért Hill Cave – also known as Saint Ivan’s Cave – has its entrance in the hillside 75 feet above the level of the River Danube. The first modern entrance was constructed in 1925/26 with the aid of explosives and the interior of the cave was made into a chapel resembling that found at Lourdes. Later a Pauline monastery was built alongside and connected to the chapel with its own private entrance. Sadly, the Communists confiscated the chapel in 1951, desecrating it over one night and then sealing up the entrance with concrete “for security reasons.” It then suffered ignominious spells serving as a karst water inspection station and government store, until three years after the political changes – in 1992 – it was finally restored into a functioning chapel.
(II. Szépvölgyi út 162. Tel.: 325-9505) Extending to over 8½ miles, this is the second largest cave system in Hungary, but its discovery was an accident. Legend has it that one day in June 1904 the ground suddenly opened up under a sheep that happened to be grazing in the garden belonging to the local mine. One János Bagyura, the son of the overseer, rushed to try and save the animal and noticed that the hole that had opened up appeared to lead somewhere. For the next six years a determined band of amateur potholers continued a series of excavations, and succeeded in opening up a half a mile of caves.
Although the cave is probably best known for its dripstones, of arguably far more interest are the high-ceilinged fissure-like corridors, the significant differences between their levels, and the way the mineral waters have fashioned the rock into unusual spherical shapes. The part of the system that has been reopened to the public is about a third of a mile long and contains much that is of interest. Visitors will witness weirdly shaped stalagmites and stalactites, as well as sparkling crystals of calcite and fantastic fossils of shells. All around are unusual rock formations that have stood unchanged for thousands of years. This is a world that appears to have petrified, where even the temperature remains constant (at 52°F, or 11°C) regardless of season. (Open every day except Monday from 9.00 a.m. to 4.15 p.m. Guided visits only. Tours set off every hour at a quarter past the hour.)
(II. Pusztaszeri út 35. Tel.: 325-6001) This cave system was discovered three quarters of a century ago. In the autumn on 1930, during quarrying on a plot of land adjacent to Zöldmáli út (the site of present day Barlang utca 10), it was observed that deep, narrow fissures had begun to open up in the rock. The quarry owner called in some experts and they observed that the material making up the pisolite finials that covered the walls of the caves to an extent not seen anywhere else in Hungary was in fact not calcite, as might have been expected in a dripstone cave, but aragonite, which is a residue left over from thermal water. This, along with the presence of crystals of calcium sulphate, confirmed that the caves had been formed by thermal waters. Decades of research and exploration followed, until the caves were finally opened to the public in 1986. A 300-yard stretch of the mile-long system has been illuminated and made accessible to visitors. The unusual animal shapes of many of the rock formations are particularly popular with children, as is the so called Chamber of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Since 1990 the caves have also served a medical purpose. The purity of the air rivals that of high-altitude sanatoria. The humidity level is almost 100 per cent, which has many therapeutic benefits, and the dust content of the air is a fraction of the norm to be found at ground level. These ideal conditions reassert themselves as soon as half an hour after the departure of the last visitors. (Open every day except Tuesday. Guided visits only. Tours set off every hour on the hour.)
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